Police use-of-force can be a controversial issue, especially when the results turn deadly.

Across the country, high-profile incidents like the 2013 shooting death of knife-wielding 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in Toronto have put officers' actions in the spotlight.

In June 2014, Vancouver police officers got into a shootout with Gerald Battersby, leaving him injured, and in November of the same year, a reportedly distraught Phuong Na Du was killed by Vancouver police at East 41st Avenue and Knight Street.

It's in that context that the Vancouver Police Department invited local media behind the scenes Thursday to learn about the training officers undergo and the use-of-force options they have at their disposal.

"The officers aren't in the business of holding until cover comes, they're allowed — in the criminal code — to use force to control someone and to prevent an assault as well," said Training Sgt. Clive Milligan.

"If there's a physical control with active resistance and the subject is not giving up what you need them to do, the given situation might require you to use some distraction strikes," said Milligan during one demonstration, as he punched the palm of his hand. 

"So we're talking about knees and elbows, some cranial pressure points."

Gun-wielding reporters

Reporters were invited to fire service weapons in the indoor shooting range, including a SIG Sauer P226 pistol and a Colt C8 carbine.

They  were put into various simulations where a suspect had to be arrested against her wishes, and reporters-turned-cops-for-a-day were confronted with a dizzying scenario that included about a dozen actors.

A fight broke out outside a make-believe casino and while the pretend officers tried to handle that situation, a man several metres away was fake-stabbed and a perpetrator fled.

VPD use-of-force training

An officer holds the barbed dart shot from a Taser during a use-of-force demonstration. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The simulations were clearly designed to demonstrate how quickly things happen, and how overwhelming and intense situations can become for officers.

Transparency 'critically important'

"In B.C. and across Canada there have been, really, a lot of issues with use-of-force," said B.C. Civil Liberties Association Executive Director Josh Paterson. "These are difficult decisions that do have to be taken by police officers, often in very dangerous situations."

Paterson said media events like Thursday's can help lead to more transparency for police forces and training efforts, but there's still a lot of work needed to be done.

"We as a society entrust police exclusively with being able to use force, including lethal force against us in certain circumstances," said Paterson. "So it's critically important that police are open to the public — through the media — about how they do that, how they make those kinds of decisions."

VPD use-of-force training

Reporters struggle to force an actor to put her hands behind her back during a training simulation put on by the Vancouver Police Department. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Just because they're being open about it doesn't mean we shouldn't ask questions," he said, adding that B.C. has recently seen "an up-tick in police-involved deaths."

Paterson emphasized the need for de-escalation tactics and training, especially in cases involving mental health issues. It was a subject that came up repeatedly at the VPD's session.

"We know they're taking it seriously," he said. "We know that they're earnestly working on it, but it's difficult to translate that out to the thousands of officers that are on the streets."

Sgt. Randy Fincham said Vancouver police offers have to complete two training days each year, on a wide variety of themes.

with files from Stephanie Mercier